Sunday, September 09, 2007


"Death is everywhere… there are flies on the windscreen for a start…reminding us… we could be torn apart tonight"
-Depeche Mode

"If you're afraid to die, you'd best not be afraid to live"

"I want more LIFE...Fucker!"
-Blade Runner

Death can really take the joy out of living.
I don't exactly mean that in the obvious sense. Rather, the awareness of death is an ever-increasing buzz in our heads, and no matter what we do or try to think about, that noise is always under it all, getting louder as the years go by. At some point, that awareness can override our awareness of the life in front of us, the life that we are living right now, with people we love who are alive, with us, right now.

My friend Andrew told me this analogy: when we are born, we are born on a river, and that river is heading towards a huge waterfall. But most of us, early in life, are far enough away from the waterfall so that, to us, it is nothing more than an abstract idea off in the distance. We know it's there, but we don't have reason day to day to think about it. But by the time we get into our mid-30's, we can start to hear the rumble of the falls. We are headed towards those falls, and there is nothing we can do about it. But it's not quite as straight forward as that. The analogy assumes we are all going to make it to old age and then die. But no one knows when they will die (or suddenly suffer from some life-altering misfortune - a disease, a crippling accident, etc). It is more like walking along a wooded path, and you know that somewhere along this path someone is going to jump out from behind one of the trees, unseen, and hit you with a baseball bat or chop at you with an ax or stab you with a knife… you KNOW something like this is waiting for you along this path, and it could happen at any moment. You might survive the blow and have to continue your journey forever maimed (until another attack hits you by surprise), or it might kill you right there. But keep walking, and try to enjoy the woods, enjoy your walk, try not to think about it…

No wonder we live with such anxiety all the time.

A good friend of mine from long ago, someone I had fallen out of touch with for the past many years, killed himself a couple years ago, in his early 30's....
I sat by my grandmother's bedside as she gasped for breath and died in her 90's...
My cousin got Hodgkin's disease last year, cancer, and pulled through, as did another good friend's brother, who had tongue cancer...
And just last week, another good friend passed out at school. He came to and finds he now has Leukemia. It happens just like that...
There are hits, and there are misses. Sometimes we dodge the bullet, sometimes we don't. But the hits seem to be getting closer, like they've penetrated the outer circle of my life. And nobody dodges a direct hit in the long run.

Commercial from God: "There are many ways to die, but only one is right for you." Some people try one way on and decide it's not right for them, and so they go with some other way later on…(let me guess: you'd like to die in your sleep, unaware of what's happening when the time comes, right?) So much of what we do is simply a distraction from this basic fact of death.

I am beginning to think that an over-awareness of impending death is a form of psychosis, and that those people who live as though in denial of death actually have the right idea. A friend of mine told me recently that she never thought about death until I came along (...that sounds about right). She feels like she lost something innocent inside of her because of it. I'm sorry I did anything like that to her, but I have always been fairly certain that wisdom in living is not possible without an awareness of death. Life tends toward the frivolous and meaningless without that focus and perspective. And I still believe something like that, but I also believe that (as Spinal Tap put it) perhaps "a little too much fucking perspective" isn't any better.

I think a lot about the impending death of those I love most. My family - my parents, my brother, my closest friends. I might outlive my brother (if I don't, you should probably go ahead and put me on suicide watch), my friends are hit and miss, who knows, but I will face the death of my parents (and that's if all goes smoothly. That's the best we can hope for). And that thought is so horrifying to me at times that it makes me want to scream. I can't face that reality for too long and still go on with "life as usual". I don't know how to face the fact of death, I don't know how to deal with it, with it's ever-increasing presence in my life. I can't imagine life without one of my parents, or without any of the people I love for that matter. Or without ME for that matter. But somehow parents are the hardest deaths to face beforehand because they are, in all likelihood, going to die in my lifetime, no question. Everyone else I know and love might outlive me, might not. But my parents won't. If all goes "well"…

I recently finished reading Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about her experience of the year following her husband's sudden death. It is a heavy, sobering account of grief, the process of grieving as she experienced it, and it contains some very honest, intelligent thoughts concerning the experience. The quote that stays with me is the first thing she wrote after her husband died:
"Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends…"

"It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell…"

The question of God takes on ominous tones in light of death, because of the accompanying silence, because of the horror we experience in its shadow. God is not telling us why we die (or why we still die, 2000+ years after Christ came to free us from sin and death, why still the horror of death and evil all around us), nor is he offering us guidance to help us through. He is just silent. That is my experience at least, bible or no bible, and the experience of many faithful Christians whom I look up to as well. Sure, we can do mental gymnastics and come up with "reassurances", making ourselves believe that God is speaking to us, but the doubt surrounding such "encounters" strikes me as unbelievably odd. When I talk with anyone I know (or don't know for that matter), I never wonder if I really had that conversation, nor do I wonder who I was really speaking to. But my "relationship" with God, more often than not, seems to be grounded in my imagination. The question is one of Love, and what it means in the face of perpetual silence and the absence of an unshakable experience of God's presence, not just of his existence, but of his love for his creation.

Just a thought: I think if I were a parent, I wouldn't leave a steak knife in my child's room and simply tell them not to play with it lest they injure themselves or even die from a wound. I think I would keep the knife far away from them. It just seems odd to me that God would leave a tree within reach of Adam and Eve that could result in all this evil and death in the world, and not have at least some sort of guard by it 24-7, at least someone there who could argue the "con" side of eating its fruit while the serpent was arguing the "pro" side. I'm fairly sure the "fruit tree" bit is an analogy for what really happened, but whatever it stands for, the fact is that an all-powerful God allowed it to happen, it has happened under the watchful eye of an all-loving God, and sin and death continue to happen to this very day...
The word "Love". I wonder again what it means when we're talking about God's relationship to us.

(unfinished and to be continued...)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle

One of my all-time favorite authors, Madeleine L'Engle, died on Thursday at the age of 88.

Her writings have had a deep impact on the ways I thought about my faith and how life could be lived in the light of that faith. She was probably the first to make me realize that being a faithful witness to Christ was not the same thing as being a "good commercial for Jesus", that the idea of being "the only Jesus some people will ever see" is an unnecessary (and unbiblical) burden for anyone to carry, as well as a flagrant disregard for the place of the Church, the body of Christ, and our place in it. I was first introduced to her writings back in the early 90's, with the book Walking On Water, which was probably the starting place for most of her readers who hadn't been introduced through her "childrens" books like A Wrinkle In Time, etc. I've collected most of her books of non-fiction on spirituality, her journals, etc, and I am grateful for the impact she and her writings have had on my life and thought.

One of my favorite quotes of hers comes from A Circle Of Quiet, and it's a wonderful antidote to my perfectionist's fears of inadequacy and negative competitive tendencies:
"It's all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I'd never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me, ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way....Good or bad, great or little, that isn't what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die."

The world has lost a great voice of spiritual reason, truth, and creativity, and I am going to miss her particular way of "saying it, ontologically"...